Cross-border cities as a laboratory of Europe

The true meaning of Europe will be discovered when its peripheries connect, not only its capitals

Miha Kosovel, Outsider (Slovenia), 7 June 2023

In theory, the European story is a dream: nation-states give up their imperial and expansionist goals, their centralism and self-sufficiency within their borders, in order to unite and coexist in a single European family of nations. And without a doubt, the achievements are visible. Although the European Union can be criticized for many things, from incomprehensible and flawed democratic processes and meaningless regulations to a confused domestic and foreign policy that is too strong for some and too weak for others, it is difficult to really blame the European experiment as a failure.

Not only that – as recognized by the Nobel Prize Committee – the European Union is a generator of “peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe” (the transformative moment of the union of former socialist countries in the European Union and how it radically reduced the difference between East and West), but has already had a significant impact on the daily lives of a large number of Europeans. An ever-increasing number of young people are studying abroad for at least a certain period of time, there are many multinational love relationships and multilingual families, and work relationships are also becoming internationalized. But let’s not forget how an ever-increasing number of European Union residents speak a foreign language and how their main or larger cities across Europe are increasingly similar and life in them is increasingly comparable, both from an economic and cultural point of view. These cities are less and less purely national centers and more and more European.

Unfortunately, outside the main cities, Europe is significantly less noticeable. And the more we retreat towards the edges of countries, the more Europe is distant and the nation-state tangible. Although the vast majority of member states are already connected in the Schengen area and it is just as easy to cross a national border as a municipal one, the territories are not yet truly connected. At the border, one country still ends and another begins, without any intermediate zone or soft transition between them. Although Schengen opened the passage across the border, it did not really improve life in the border area, as it did not integrate the territory to any extent or enable it to function optimally across borders. Cross-border legal systems, lack of cross-border institutions, difficult financing of cross-border services and infrastructure investments, opening of companies and change of permanent address [1] show that the European Union is not really a territorial entity, but exists as a connecting link between national states or among its main cities.

To put it in a metaphor: Europe is connected like an airplane, from a big city to a big city, and not by a train, federally through the entire territory. The latter would require a planning effort, a strategic commitment to the realization of material, institutional and social infrastructure – an effort that was never really made. It is precisely the lack of strategic policies at the European level that keeps the border areas still at the level of the periphery, where, according to a Eurostat study, border areas, both internal and external, “often achieve worse economic results, and access to public services (such as hospitals or universities) is in border regions are generally worse.” Which is quite problematic, especially if we imagine that it is difficult to drive in Europe for more than a few hours without stumbling over a border. According to certain statistics, around a third of all citizens of the European Union live in an area that could be considered a border area.

In the absence of pan-European policies for cross-border coexistence and cooperation at the local level, any such activity is always a matter of two countries, two capitals, which most often have neither knowledge nor understanding of the specifics of life on the border territory. We witnessed this during the covid epidemic, when the network erected overnight on the regrown border was as protected as it had not been since the 1950s. In the case of Nova Gorica and Gorizia, this meant cutting the shared living space into two parts. In contrast to the Slovenian-Austrian border, where migration is generally one-way, in the area between the two Gorice a very large part of the population regularly migrates in both directions. Many Italians have businesses opened in Slovenia, many Slovenians have children in schools in Italy, but most of all they regularly go across the border for shopping, to sports activities, to restaurants and bars, and they also look for apartments and business premises in the entire area. The space, which the inhabitants understand and live with more and more every year as a single one, was unrealistically divided between two countries.

Adaptation

The border itself in this aspect is an end, a discontinuity in space, in the eyes of both the Union and the country. However, this is contrary to the intuitive feeling of the people living here, who do not see the border as an end, but a specific space – and even an identity – that offers a unique, diverse and rich life – but it is necessary to know how to live it . That this knowledge would not only be a matter for the individual, but would be accessible to everyone who lives here or visits this place, and would represent an established process on which we could form common institutions, urban planning, school and health systems that would enable us to build common infrastructure, and it would be useful for us to organize a concert at the border or to build a building there, we have yet to establish this border space or more precisely – to invent. What do I mean by that?

Let’s take a banal example: I’m writing my thesis in the Nova Gorica library, but I need literature from the library on the other side of the border. As I continue to write there and my battery is running low, I realize that the socket is of a different standard and therefore I cannot charge the computer. The socket made me a stranger. But if I had an adapter, I could move around with the computer without worry, because any socket would be suitable. The adapter would make two rooms into one. And if everyone always had an adapter in their pocket, we would slowly forget that there are two different socket systems.

In this sense, the adapter (I owe the idea to Anton Špacapan, Luca Chinagla and Eva Sušnik, who developed this concept before me) is a metaphor for the creation of a cross-border space. It is an established idea that helps bridge border restrictions. Such adapters are not only technical, but also social, legal and other inventions. In the absence of solutions from above, such adapters are invented at the local level.

And the Goriško district is not alone in this. There are roughly 35 such cross-border twins in Europe, of which a good half are in the area that represents the internal border in the European Union. In recent decades, the latter have been rapidly inventing ways of common civic living at the local level. This was also one of the reasons for the Transbordering laboratory project , which we started a year and a half ago with colleagues from the German-Polish neighborhood Frankfurt an Oder-Słubice and the Estonian-Latvian Valga-Valka. In overcoming the border and integrating with the other side, inventiveness must be at play, because we are moving in an undiscovered territory, in a newly discovered area of ​​the “land in between”, which does not yet have an established way of existence. The connection with other cities, other individuals, groups, organizations and institutions through the process of mutual learning forms a set of knowledge that enables easier navigation in this undefined space. Laboratory is not a random label: just as in laboratories through certain processes and experimentation we arrive at common knowledge, in cross-border twin cities we also learn to form functional cross-border communities and share this knowledge with others. A set of this knowledge, adapters, could become a European policy that would enable the integration of border territories within it and thus reverse the processes of peripheralization. If the very structure of the nation-state, which gravitates around the capital, creates a periphery at its edges, Europe in practice is now invented at the edges – local cross-border institutions become de facto European institutions, because, although local, they go beyond the nation-states themselves. Europe is reborn on the margins.

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why nationalism and chauvinism so persistently return to public discourse is precisely the lack of positive examples of European integration. The European Union is often identified with the rich, educated, “cosmopolitan” stratum of large urban centers, while outside of them is supposed to be an abandoned nation, which is now being deprived of its nation state. That is why it is important to affirm Europe in the peripheral, border areas, to take the mission of uniting Europe seriously and to invent it here. We don’t need to bring Europe here, we need to practice it here and Europe needs to transfer our local practices to the Union level.

From the beginning, I saw this as the essential mission of the Nova Gorica–Gorica 2025 – European Capital of Culture project. This should be problem-oriented and, through cultural engagement, establish and present the practices of creating a cross-border community, which will help other similar cities and comfort those areas that are currently struggling with closed and strictly guarded borders. If the EPK program is as beautiful and interesting as it is, but we fail to realize it, then the EPK will not be truly successful.

[1] And various little oddities, such as the decree according to which all residents of Italy must have a vehicle registered in Italy, which means a change in all documentation if I move two hundred meters further west; or the odyssey that a letter goes through when it has to go from the post office in Nova Gorica via Ljubljana and Florence to reach the post office in Gorica. 

The contribution is part of the “Nova Gorica 2025” series, which focuses on the spatial development of Nova Gorica. The series in the critical period of preparation for the European Capital of Culture project GO! 2025 is edited by architect Eva Sušnik in cooperation with the editors of Outsider magazine.

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